Panelists at the discussion on housing affordability included (left to right) Karl Eckhart, vice president of intergovernmental affairs for the National Association of Home Builders; Lauren Johnson, director of communications and community outreach for the Polk County Housing Trust Fund; Dan Garrett, vice president of originations for WNC; and Eric Webster, general manager of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices First Realty. Photo by Kathy A. Bolten 

Area homebuilders and real estate agents provided a preview of what they likely will say tonight during a public hearing in Des Moines about changes to the city’s proposed zoning code.

The Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines and the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors today sponsored a panel discussion about housing affordability and how changes to Des Moines’ zoning code could affect homebuyers’ ability to purchase newly constructed houses.

Eric Webster, general manager of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices First Realty, told the more than 150 people at panel discussion that the price gap between newly built houses and existing houses is already wide. In Des Moines, newly built houses sell for about $200 per square foot; existing houses sell for around $130 per square foot, he said. 

The proposed changes to the zoning code are “going to drive that price per square foot up significantly,” Webster said. “And that’s going to widen the gap even further between resale and new construction.

“Houses being built today in Des Moines would not be built tomorrow based on [the city’s proposed] minimum square footage requirements, garage and basement requirements,” he said.

Webster said he estimated that about 60 houses currently under construction in Des Moines could not be built under the proposed zoning code. 

Des Moines is in the midst of updating its zoning code, which provides development guidelines for its industrial, commercial and residential districts. The proposed code spells out the types of materials that can be used in various types of developments, including housing. It also sets minimum square footage requirements for different styles of houses and mandates that new houses have basements and garages.

City officials have said the new requirements will provide Des Moines higher valuations that will generate more in property tax revenue to help pay for city services provided to both existing areas and new development areas. About 40% of the property in Des Moines is tax-exempt, so the city must look for ways to create valuation that generates property tax revenue, officials say.

In addition, city officials say homebuilders can ask for variances from city staff, the Plan and Zoning Commission and the City Council if the houses they want to construct don’t comply with the proposed city code.

Officials have said that the city provides homebuyers with affordable housing through Des Moines’ existing housing stock and multiple-family housing.

“Basically, they’re saying, ‘We don’t want to have housing affordability,’ ” said Karl Eckhart, vice president of intergovernmental affairs for the National Association of Home Builders, based in Washington, D.C. Eckhart is originally from Iowa and worked with former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

“I never thought Des Moines would be a place that would want to get rid of housing for nurses or teachers or firefighters,” he said.

Webster said it’s problematic for governmental officials “to mess with the free market."

"Builders that are here in the room should be able to decide what they think is the right [type of house to build] in certain areas … and what features to include,” he said.

The Des Moines Plan and Zoning Commission is holding a public hearing on the proposed zoning code at 6 p.m. today at the Richard A. Clark Municipal Service Center, 1551 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.